2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of the Jerusalem Post.

The controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has brought to the fore the differences that exist between the Jewish and Christian communities, even in this age of profound Jewish-Christian rapprochement. I have watched the mounting debate over this film with great sadness these last few months. Throughout my rabbinical career I have made no secret of my profound admiration for Christians in general, and evangelicals in particular. Lovers of G-d and country, raisers of refined and spiritual children, stalwart defenders of the State of Israel, and deeply committed to combating the moral decay of the popular culture in America, evangelical Christians are people to whom all Jews can look to for brotherhood and inspiration. Which makes it all the more painful to see a sharp area of disagreement erupting between our two communities.

Several high-profile Jewish co-admirers of Christianity--my dear friends, national radio host Michael Medved and orthodox scholar Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in particular--have made the case that the Jewish community dare not alienate the evangelical community over something as insignificant as a movie. This is a point that Michael Medved made to me in a debate we had recently on his radio show, which is curious because Michael is at the forefront of arguing, as do I, that TV and movies have a huge impact on how people think and behave.

I believe Medved and Lapin--both phenomenally committed and profoundly knowledgeable Jews--are forgetting that notwithstanding the Jewish community's deep gratitude to evangelicals for their unflinching support of Israel, we still remain two distinct communities that at times have vastly different agendas. To be sure, America is a country built on Judeo-Christianity, and we share the common goal of sustaining and advancing America's moral and spiritual heritage, built as it is on the bedrock of our mutual faiths. But there will nonetheless be times that, for all their commonalities, the two communities come into sharp disagreement. At those times it behooves neither community to falsely paper over those differences.

Such an issue is the question of Jewish culpability for the death of Christ. I would like to see Christianity grow and flourish in the United States, but with one essential caveat: that such growth does not come at the expense of Judaism. Our Christian evangelical brethren are choosing to use "The Passion" as a tool for promoting the gospel, even though it falsely portrays the Jews as demanding the death of Jesus amid intense Roman reticence.

Medved and Lapin have emerged as crusaders for this film. In hailing "The Passion" as "the finest Hollywood adaptation ever of a biblical story," Medved has dismissed charges of anti-Semitism in the movie by saying that in the film "some of the bad guys are Jewish, some of the really bad guys are Roman, and virtually all of the good guys are Jewish." Remarkably, he neglects to mention that all the Jewish 'good guys' are Jewish followers of Jesus, in other words, Christians, while the throngs calling for Jesus to be executed are Pharisaic Jews, from whom all modern Jews descend.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin is intensely hostile to any hostility to "The Passion," going so far as to compare Jewish organizations that oppose the film to 'Rottweilers'' (read article). He further impugns the motives of the film's Jewish critics by saying their intention was 'to ruin Mel Gibson.' I personally could care less for Mr. Gibson. People like me who protest "The Passion"'s portrayal of the Jews as being responsible for Jesus' death do so simply to end a 2000-year-old defamatory lie and refute the world's first blood libel, that the Jews killed the founder of Christianity. In that respect, it does not matter whether or not, to use Lapin's words, the film will lead to 'a pogrom in Pittsburgh.' Surely if someone defamed Rabbi Lapin and called him a murderer, even if such a charge would not lead to any violence against him, he would seek to exonerate his name.

Rabbi Lapin says that he'll give the Jewish leaders the benefit of the doubt and not accuse them of falsely inflaming Jewish fears simply for the purposes of fundraising: "Apparently, frightening wealthy widows in Florida about anti-Semitic thugs prowling the streets of America causes them to open their pocketbooks and refill the coffers of groups with little other raison d'être." But even by mentioning this gratuitous insult against organizations like the ADL, he unwittingly reinforces the most negative stereotype of Jews being prepared to sell out their interests for cash, a stereotype based on Judas's betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver in the passion narrative. Surely Rabbi Lapin agrees that there is still plenty of anti-Semitism to combat even in the United States, as one who simply googles the word 'Jew' will discover (the very first website that pops up is "Jewwatch," 'keeping an eye on. Jewish terrorists, Jewish atrocities, and Jewish banking and financial manipulations.').

Lapin writes that "The Passion of the Christ" is "wholesome entertainment." He is, of course, entitled to his opinion. But I wonder why such wholesome entertainment must necessary involve first-century Jewry taking sadistic and demonic delight at the brutal torture of Jesus by the Romans and demanding from Pontias Pilate, the Saddam Hussein of the ancient Middle-East, to have Jesus nailed up to two planks of wood. I'm not sure that many Jews in the audience - particularly those who grew up in American public schools being called `Christ-killers' - will consider that wholesome entertainment. No doubt Rabbi Lapin would counter that Gibson is simply following the gospel texts and that it is not for us, as Jews, to tell Christians what to believe. But Gibson has taken a highly selective reading of the gospels. The New Testament says that Pilate was so cruel that he slaughtered a huge group of Galileans who were worshipping in the Temple (Luke 13:1) and that the Pharisees, far from calling for Jesus' death, had earlier saved his life: "At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to [Jesus], "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." (Luke 13:31) Later, Acts 5 and 23 have the Pharisees saving the lives of both Peter and Paul. Yet there isn't a hint of this Jewish benevolence toward Christians anywhere in the film.

Lapin further accuses the Jewish community of hypocrisy because "Arnold Lehman, the Jewish director of the Brooklyn Museum" insulted Catholics by agreeing to display a `dung-bedecked Madonna.' He adds that Jewish record company executives "produced obscene records. that advocated killing policemen and raping and murdering women" that were not protested by the Jewish community. In addition, he says, the Jewish community never protested Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, even though it insulted Christianity.

By invoking the actions of individuals who happen to be Jews - who were not of course ever acting in an official Jewish capacity - and holding it against the Jewish community, Lapin seems intent on hurling any accusation he can find in order to defend Mel Gibson. The analogy, of course, is ludicrous. The Jewish community cannot be held accountable for the individual actions of individual Jews, just as Catholics and Christians cannot be held accountable for films made by Hollywood actors like Mel Gibson. The difference here is that Christian groups of every denomination are promoting "The Passion" as a profound evangelical tool, encouraging their parishioners to "help make it the biggest Hollywood release ever." Both evangelical and Catholic organizations are making an all out effort to get American theater-goers to see "The Passion." Can Rabbi Lapin name one Jewish group that promoted "The Last Temptation of Christ," a singularly horrible film that was indeed grotesquely insulting to the Christian faith? Can he name a single synagogue that bought tickets for its members, as hundreds of churches are now doing across America? Can he name a single Jewish organization that encouraged Jews to go the Brooklyn museum to see the dung-covered Madonna, which was indeed a horrible and disgusting affront to Catholicism?

No Jewish groups got behind any of these actions not only because we have no interest in defaming Christianity. Much more importantly, we have never sought to promote Judaism at the expense of Christianity.

I agree with Rabbi Lapin that Jewish groups should have protested these affronts to Christianity, as did I. But I am much more forgiving of Jewish officialdom not having done so given that they have their hands full combating an all-out assault on Jewish life and the Jewish state from Islamic terrorists.

I do indeed pray that the intimate bond and deep respect forged between the Christian and Jewish communities over the last few decades will not in any way be impaired by this film. But notwithstanding how much I love my Christian brethren, I will still not allow the lie that the Jews killed Jesus to go unchallenged. Rabbi Lapin says that such "arrogant and intemperate" opposition "refutes all myths of Jewish intelligence." But that still will not silence me in proving historically and biblically that the Jews did not kill Jesus.

Rabbi Lapin may be correct. I may be dumb. And I may be arrogant. But I'm not a murderer.

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